The Old Woman with the Knife 
by Gu Byeong-mo, translated by Chi-Young Kim.
Canongate, 281 pp., £14.99, March 2022, 978 1 83885 643 4
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If you were​ to make a film of Gu Byeong-mo’s The Old Woman with the Knife, you’d need a lot of extras. In the novel’s public spaces, no one does anything remotely out of the ordinary without bystanders gathering, staring or pretending not to stare. An old man tips over a rubbish cart in the middle of the road and is given a ‘pointed look’ by one onlooker, while another ‘chews gum loudly’, waiting for the pavement to be cleared; groups of pedestrians ‘frown as they stomp over flattened boxes’. On the Seoul subway at rush hour, ‘a river of workers gushes out’ the moment the doors open. Inside the carriages, sweaty bodies sway in concert, glued together ‘like molluscs’, exuding a general stench of ‘meat and garlic and alcohol’. A man wearing scuffed Ferragamo shoes and the ‘sort of clutch bag … carried by debt collectors working for loan sharks’ verbally abuses a pregnant woman, aware that no one will pay attention; the various men ‘sitting around her are avoiding her gaze or faking sleep’. When, on the platform, the man suddenly stiffens and pitches forward, with a neat knife mark scored into the back of his leather jacket, he’s a nuisance, a disturbance in the flow of traffic. ‘Even those who pause stand at a distance so that they won’t be roped in to help.’

No one spots the subway assassin, because she’s an elderly woman. Hornclaw – her professional alias – is 65, though from the ‘number and depth of the grooves in her face’ you’d be forgiven for thinking she was eighty. She is a loner, her only companion a weary dog, Deadweight, who in animal years is probably as old as she is. In public, she ‘skates under the radar’. Her gym-honed ‘killer body’ lurks beneath subdued ‘off-brand but decent clothes’; she has a pocket-sized Bible to read on the subway, rather than a copy of ‘Hegel or Kant or Spinoza’; she looks as if she’d be glad to take care of grandchildren, if she had any. In her sheer forgettability – people notice her, then rapidly ‘excise her from their consciousness’ – she’s a version of the understated, hyper-ordinary female protagonist we recognise from contemporary Korean feminist fiction: the title character of Cho Nam-joo’s Kim Jiyoung, Born 1982 (2016), for instance, with her pointedly average experiences of harassment and workplace sexism; or Yeong-hye, the housewife in Han Kang’s The Vegetarian (2007), described approvingly by her husband as ‘the most run-of-the-mill woman in the world’. ‘Middling height; bobbed hair neither long nor short … She made for a completely ordinary wife who went about things without any distasteful frivolousness.’

Hornclaw has her reasons for not wanting to be seen. Anonymity, in her line of work, isn’t something you suffer from, or that other people impose on you: it’s a weapon, one of the qualities that make a contract killer good at what she does. On the job, she doesn’t ‘look much different from a housewife stabbing a brisket with a kitchen knife’. Small and slight, she’s accustomed to overpowering people (usually men) who can’t understand where her strength comes from. Her first victim, as a teenager, was a huge American soldier, his ‘yeasty hand … so large that it nearly covered her entire face’. (She impales him as he slices open her blouse.) When we meet her, she’s reeling from having encountered an unexpectedly ‘agile target’, who slams her into the ground and kicks her in the ribs, crowing over her (‘Send a better bitch. OK? If there aren’t enough girls, at least send a guy my size’), before she buries a knife in his chest. In her sixties, she’s aware that her reflexes are slowing and her joints are starting to creak; but killing, like a drug or gambling addiction, is a difficult thing to extricate yourself from, a way of life from which few retire gracefully. ‘Trying to picture someone who has been killing people for 45 years frying chicken or dry-cleaning clothes is like trying to imagine an old wolf incubating an egg.’

The agency Hornclaw works for, a prestigious ‘disease control’ firm she helped to found with her first mentor, Ryu, values discretion and professionalism. It attracts super-wealthy clients impatient for results, who want top-flight targets eliminated – celebrities, company chairmen, real estate magnates, politicians – as well as lower-level ‘vermin’, organised crime middle-managers and taxi licence peddlers. Its best operatives, Hornclaw’s younger colleague Bullfight in particular, have ‘a talent for customer service’, indulging the ‘cumbersome and deranged’ requests of clients who want their enemies to marinate in fear before they’re dispatched – to have their fingers ‘chopped off joint by joint’, or their arms and legs broken. The firm relies on a small network of underground businesses: there’s a co-operative doctor, who treats the bizarre injuries of the disease control specialists off the books and ‘sells them all kinds of drugs’; a taciturn crematorium worker who accepts battered corpses and scraps of evidence at night and doesn’t ask questions (‘Leather shoes and a rock … This time I’m going to charge double, I’m telling you’); an arms warehouse that stocks guns and grenades to order. Contract killing, in this world, is systemic, part of the fabric of a slick, commercial society; it facilitates the smooth running of corporations, banks and political institutions. One of its typical victims, in an episode that takes place twenty years before the novel opens, is Bullfight’s father, a man who has made enemies in the construction business through his habit of bribing people and cutting corners. Dispassionately, Gu reels off the effects of his murder, the commercial ones first:

The victim’s projects were put on hold, then sold off to other entities, and the boy was admitted to a psych ward for half a year. People gradually forgot about the incident. The boy never managed to have a good relationship with his mostly absent mother, whose relatives soon introduced her to a new man, a foreign biologist.

Violence, here, is a means of doing business: it involves salaries, paperwork, writing up reports, following procedure. In its ordinariness, it gets everywhere in the novel, colouring Gu’s metaphors, the way her characters perceive objects and people. To Hornclaw, the intricate colours and patterns available at a nail salon resemble the ‘lacerations and scars’ on her body. The customers with ‘both hands on the table in front of them’, awaiting the technician, bring to mind ‘Arab thieves right before their hands are chopped off as punishment’. Watching an old man eat a peach, she imagines it ‘smashed inside his mouth’ (elsewhere in the novel, the target who almost kills her ends up ‘half-smashed’ on the ground, a ‘writhing worm’). Bullfight, coming home as a child to the sight of his father’s ‘slumped body’, sees gore everywhere: ‘the hallway to the living room seemed to loll like a dead person’s tongue’. Once you start looking at the world this way, it’s hard to stop. Even the prospect of buying a new fridge prompts Hornclaw to wonder, instinctively, if the new 800-litre model on the market would be useful for storing corpses.

What makes violence into plot – something extraordinary, worth remarking on – is rogue activity, work outside the agency’s procedural lines. Disease control specialists aren’t supposed to kill for their own agendas or to satisfy personal grudges; if they do, their fellow operatives are tasked with tracking them down and removing a key body part, ‘usually … a hand or a foot or, sometimes, an eye’. When, halfway through the novel, Bullfight starts rifling through the agency’s filing cabinets at night, trying to discover the identity of the mysterious female assassin who dispatched his father many years before, killing becomes less about eliminating society’s pests than gratifying a private desire for revenge. Hornclaw, softening in her old age, develops a crush on the sympathetic Dr Kang, who patches her up after a kill; Bullfight, scenting weakness, goes after Dr Kang’s family, anonymously requesting a hit on the doctor’s father before abducting his daughter. To Hornclaw, unaware of the connection between her colleague and the real estate mogul she knifed twenty years ago, Bullfight’s behaviour is unfathomable, as shocking for its disregard of the rules as for the destruction it entails. ‘When she considered Bullfight she felt exasperated,’ Gu writes, ‘as though she were gazing at the youngest son of the family who ruined precariously harmonious dinners.’

In its sheer goriness, much of the novel’s revenge action seems to belong on the screen. Throughout, there are nods to film, self-conscious references to the cinematic nature of chases and kills. Hornclaw, lurking unnoticed in the subway, ‘exists like an extra in a movie’, as if peripheral to her own slasher plot; when she and Bullfight meet for their final showdown in an abandoned building on the edge of town, she senses that ‘he seems to want it to be more dramatic and violent than a simple kill.’ He, for his part, apologises sardonically for having supplied her with only a handful of hired gunmen to pick off: ‘I wanted to welcome you with more fanfare, but I don’t have an unlimited budget.’ The peach allergy he suffers from – biting into one causes a rash to ‘bloom around his mouth’ – recalls the plot of Bong Joon-ho’s Parasite (2019), in which it’s the same allergy, in the Parks’ housekeeper, that allows the scheming Kim family to get her fired (they pretend her coughing is a symptom of tuberculosis).

References like these tell us how to read: they make sense of violence that’s choreographed, vivid, stomach-churning. In The Vegetarian, Yeong-hye describes the violent acts she perpetrates in her dreams, as if watching a hyped-up version of herself from the outside: ‘Dreams of my hands around someone’s throat, throttling them, grabbing the swinging ends of their long hair and hacking it all off, sticking my finger into their slippery eyeball.’ In both novels, spurts of blood invoke the lavish red of horror film wounds: at a family lunch, blood is seen to ‘ribbon out’ of Yeong-hye’s wrist, ‘splash[ing] over white china’; in The Old Woman, Hornclaw shoots one of Bullfight’s gunmen in the abdomen, making ‘huge quantities of blood spray in an arc’. Gu’s writing about violence is both fantastic – as a teenager, Hornclaw manages to flip her unpleasant cousin over her shoulder, sending him ‘flying through the air’ upside down – and gruesomely anatomical. Stamping on the handle of her knife to make sure one target is dead, she feels a ‘reverberation’ as the ‘thick muscles and veins in his heart’ are severed; when Ryu is killed by a bomb in his booby-trapped apartment, his body scatters into pieces, ‘one of his ankles roll[ing] in front of the broken living-room window’. Bullfight dies with his ‘intestines … visible’, the ‘tang of death’ wafting from his open abdomen and his mouth filling up with blood. Not much here is straightforwardly tragic. As in Parasite, or Park Chan-wook’s Oldboy (2003), the bloodiest scenes in The Old Woman swerve sideways into humour, or water down extremity with ordinariness. To the young Bullfight, his father’s blood doesn’t smell as alarming as it ought to: ‘Strangely, even as he thought, This is blood, he was suddenly reminded of maple syrup poured over hot, fluffy pancakes.’ In the showdown scene, Bullfight’s last remaining gunman, his hands and feet ‘busted’, slashed by Hornclaw’s knife, ‘glares hatefully’ at her before ‘crawling down the stairs like a wriggling caterpillar’. ‘It looks like it’ll take him nearly all day to go down all five storeys,’ Gu adds, deadpan.

When the novel turns sentimental, it’s less sure of itself. A tentative thread of symbolism connects Hornclaw and the market stall owned by Dr Kang’s parents, linking the sweetness of peaches and tangerines with her budding feelings. (When, at the end of the novel, she plucks up the courage to visit a nail salon, the design she chooses resembles ‘many different kinds of fruit’.) But the peaches she buys from the Kangs, ‘pure sugar’ to begin with, grow ‘sour and putrid’ at the back of her fridge, collapsing on the way to ‘complete liquefaction’. The narrative seems only half-invested in its romantic possibilities, dampening them or killing them off before they have a chance to develop. ‘Stories with just a dash of sugar expand like cotton candy until they end up soggy and sticky,’ Gu observes. Hornclaw, as she herself is aware, has spent too many decades shielding other people’s dark secrets to risk vulnerability. Opening up would likely ‘get her admitted to a mental ward’. ‘Not long afterward some disease control specialist would come by, disguised as a visitor or a medical professional, and probably add something to her medication.’

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